Smoking and the effect on your heart

Lifestyle Management 12 March 2021

As well as being a leading cause of some cancers, and causing lung conditions, there are various ways in which smoking can affect the heart. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease, and should be avoided by people with cardiomyopathy. 

The nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant which causes the body to release adrenaline. Sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, adrenaline increases the heart rate and raises blood pressure (so that your body is prepared to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ any danger). This increases the pressure that the heart is under to work. 

Smoking can affect the inner lining of some blood vessels (arteries), causing them to become damaged. This is caused by fatty material building up in the arteries, which leads to the development of atheroma (areas of damage in the artery walls due to fatty material and scarring). This narrows or blocks the arteries, making it harder for blood to travel through and reducing the oxygen getting to the body’s tissues.  

Where blood flow is reduced in the coronary arteries (the arteries that give the heart’s chambers their own supply of blood to function), it reduces the blood reaching the heart muscle.  

This causes added strain on the heart, can cause chest pain (called angina) and lead to coronary heart disease (where the oxygen levels reaching the blood are reduced, which can lead to a heart attack). People who smoke are more likely to have a heart attack than people who have never smoked. 

Smoking can also make blood more likely to clot. This is because the platelets in the blood are more likely to stick together and form clots, and because the damage to the inner lining of the arteries (see above) also makes clots more likely to form due to the build up of atheroma. Blood clots can lead to a stroke or heart attack. 

The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke reduces how much oxygen can be carried in the blood. This not only means that the heart is under greater pressure to supply oxygen to the body, but it also results in reduced oxygen getting to the heart, as well as other areas of the body. 

For more information about stopping smoking, how your GP can help, and details of the NHS stop smoking services, visit NHS Choices or Signup to the NHS smokefree service 

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